Unpredictable, but Beautiful: Forward Movement in Contemporary Dance

Revolutionary ideas in dance were espoused in Europe and the U.S. as early as mid- to late-19th century, but 20thcentury visionaries such as Martha Graham began to question and reject the rules while Mexico’s José Limónbrought entirely new philosophic approaches to movement, paving the way for contemporary and modern dance. Graham student Merce Cunningham did both, working with collaborators such avant-garde visionary John Cagewhile taking a no-limitations approach to physical expression and visual presentation. Just one example was Cunningham’s predilection for movement independent from music, which was a particular influence on current choreographer Lula Washington who uses music as a backdrop rather than directly connecting rhythm and tempo to choreography.

Washington, who created choreography for Avatar and The Little Mermaid, extends the innovative ideas of her predecessors and their contemporaries. African dance and hip-hop are not just infused into choreography; they form new foundations.

Even more so than Cunningham, Washington’s discovery of Alvin Ailey’s work was a life-changing event that influenced her path that eventually led to the formation of the Lula Washington Dance Theatre. Like Ailey, who became her personal friend, Washington came to dance later in life and established herself in California. Ailey’s main instructor was Lester Horton, who founded the Dance Theater of Los Angeles and drew on jazz and Native American dance for his contemporary routines. Isolation from the dance capitol of New York played a role in Horton’s iconoclastic approach, but it also led to choreographer gigs in Hollywood. Horton died in 1953, leading 22-year-old Ailey to step up and fill Horton’s role. Seven years later his signature work, Revelations, was produced, drawing on blues and spirituals to depict the African-American experience before and after slavery.

Washington’s blending of techniques and styles continues to further the legacy of modern and contemporary dance much as Ailey’s did in his time. In addition, her work addresses social conscious themes (Search for Humanism) and demonstrates inspired innovation (A Separate Reality) while stretching the boundaries of expressiveness, which is very much aligned with the tenets of the genre. 

Lula Washington Dance Theatre will perform at The Smith Center Wednesday, Sept. 16. Works to be performed include Search for Humanism, We Wore the Mask, Beautiful Venus and Serena, Random Thoughts, Reign, and the world premiere of A Separate Reality. Tickets start at $19.

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